Free and Unfair Elections in Hungary
March 13, 2014
With a little less than one month remaining before Hungary’s election on April 6th, there is little doubt that Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party will be re-elected and thus, further consolidate its power in parliament. Fidesz, which has raised eyebrows in both Brussels and Washington for rolling back democratic checks and balances, has enjoyed a seemingly unassailable command over Hungary’s political system since its “supermajority” election win in 2010. This time around, Fidesz’s victory is not in question but whether it can repeat another two-thirds majority remains to be seen. One can surmise that their odds are good and that another sweeping majority will embolden Fidesz to continue wholesale changes to the constitution.
Given the current state of the political opposition in Hungary, few would doubt Fidesz’s ability to legitimately win a “free and fair” election. There are those, however, who doubt that this year’s election will be anything but fair. It has become increasingly clear, over the last four years, that Fidesz has pursued a myriad of ways in which to secure its next electoral victory. Everything under the election umbrella, from the newly devised electorate system, institutions, and laws, favours Fidesz. The opposition is now forced to contend with a number of new rules and regulations that have made campaigning increasingly difficult. Orban and his ilk have managed to monopolize the media, particularly offline sources, and have found innovative ways to circumvent laws that they themselves have introduced as means to limit the opposition’s national reach.
The neutered state of political opposition in Hungary, which at times borders on ineptitude, has undoubtedly not helped matters. Despite a great deal of in-fighting, a tacit understanding among much of Hungary’s political opposition emerged that left the country’s centre-left opposition with no other recourse but to band together and establish a united front against a better funded and highly organized Fidesz political machine. Agreeing to a common platform has been nothing short of an arduous journey for the opposition, and one that has made for strange bedfellows. The time needed to form consensus among divergent parties, however, allowed Fidesz the opportunity to further organize and spread its message.
Among the most dubious pre-election tactics employed by Fidesz has been its approach to political advertising. Political advertising has been considerably restricted by the Fidesz party, with state-owned stations restricted to eight hours of political advertising over the course of 50 days of official campaigning. This has been coupled with commercial television stations being barred from charging money for political advertising. Outdoor advertising, particularly in Budapest, has also been severely curtailed. Interestingly enough, however, outdoor advertising restrictions do not apply to so-called independent groups. Such has been the case with the pro-Orban Civil Union Forum, which receives a great deal of its funding from a Fidesz foundation. As a result, the circumvention of political advertising rules through soft money has given Fidesz a decisive advantage, leaving the opposition ill-equipped to catch up. No political rival is capable of competing with the combination of what are possibly illegally-acquired funds and the sheer total spending power of Fidesz.
In short, these measures on political advertising have enabled the Fidesz party to tilt the playing field in its favour. Former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who has been targeted in Fidesz ads, says of Fidesz’s approach: “It’s in their interest to limit political advertising — the public media is under their control. Half of the billboard posts around the country are owned by their oligarchs, and the rest is being flooded by state-owned company advertising, so there is no room for us.”
Most telling, however, is a new election framework that makes it virtually inevitable that Fidesz will retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority, even if it receives less than half the overall vote. Analysts have predicted that the united opposition coalition would need about 6% more votes than Fidesz to win a simple majority. Fidesz could get away winning another majority with only 48% of the vote. If Fidesz were to repeat its previous electoral result of 53%, it would win 76% of the seats in parliament, as opposed to the 68% it won in the last election.
Ultimately, Fidesz has designed an electoral system that minimizes the possibility of defeat. A system where the opposition needs to win by a substantial margin can hardly be deemed fair. The Fidesz position has been further bolstered by its ability to isolate the opposition from the media. Although the election result has been all but a foregone conclusion for some time now, it is disconcerting to know that the party has already established the necessary preconditions to steal future elections.
Alexander Boehm is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com